- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

The selection of Ibrahim al-Jaafari to stay on as Iraq’s prime minister exposes stresses within his Shi’ite coalition and the growing political importance of militant conservative cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The backing of Sheik al-Sadr, whose followers captured about one-quarter of the Shi’ite alliance’s 128 seats in the new parliament, proved critical in a weekend vote of caucus members to determine who would be prime minister.

“He became the kingmaker,” said Amatzia Baram, a Woodrow Wilson International Center fellow who follows Iraqi political developments. “Without Muqtada, Jaafari had no chance.”

Sheik al-Sadr “is quite influential,” Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlaq said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

The cleric’s support for the Dawa party leader over Adil Abdul-Mahdi, the favorite of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), also exposed a loss of influence by the powerful pro-Iranian party, Mr. Baram and Mr. al-Mutlaq said.

The selection of Mr. al-Jaafari surprised many who saw him as a largely ineffectual leader in the current government, unable to control the brutal insurgency, armed party militias bent on sectarian killings and rampant corruption.

In exchange for his support, Sheik al-Sadr is expected to request that his followers receive greater control over the social and economic future of Iraq through the ministries of Health, Education and Transportation.

“He will do the Hamas thing,” said Mr. Baram, referring to the militant party that recently won Palestinian elections in part by capitalizing on an extensive network of social services.

Sheik al-Sadr “will establish himself, he will get large budgets, he will do what needs to be done, and the people will be beholden to him for services, not the state, but him, and his picture will be in each hospital and each school,” Mr. Baram said.

Mr. al-Jaafari’s nomination opened the way for tough negotiations for Cabinet posts. The Sunnis and Kurds, who make up the rest of the 275-seat parliament, are making their demands known.

“The real battle has started today,” said Zakia Hakki, a female judge and member of parliament, speaking from Baghdad as helicopters roared overhead.

Minority Sunnis, fearing revenge attacks by Shi’ite militias, are demanding the ministries of Interior and Defense. The Interior Ministry is seen as the private fiefdom of SCIRI’s armed Badr militia, which has been accused of running anti-Sunni hit squads and secret prisons.

Failing that, the Sunnis said, they are ready to challenge Mr. al-Jaafari’s nomination in parliament.

“We would like to see both the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior in the hands of liberal nonsectarian persons not connected to any party which has a militia,” said Mr. al-Mutlaq.

“As for the ministries of Oil and Finance, we want them to be run by decent technocrats not involved in corruption at all,” he said.

“If not, there is another scenario: We will join with the Kurds to make a [political] bloc that is larger than the Shi’ite bloc and we will nominate another prime minister.”

Mr. al-Mutlaq said the Kurds are unlikely to support the Sunnis against Mr. al-Jaafari without exacting support for their own demands, such as merging the city of Kirkuk into the northern region of Kurdistan.

A Kurdish official close to the political deliberations said he expected “complicated, tense and long, drawn-out discussions” over the formation of the government.

“It is all one big jigsaw puzzle and all intricately connected,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“We are exactly where we were last year,” when it took almost four months of closed-door bargaining to get a new government, the Kurdish official said.

“Except that the stakes are higher this year, with a four-year government, and the issues are more complex because the Sunnis are actively involved,” he said.

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